Skip to main content

The "Anecdote as Proof" Game

By WizenedSage (Galen Rose) ~

A while back, looking for insight into theistic thinking, I read a book titled, “Life, God, and Other Small Topics: Conversations from Socrates in the City” Edited by Eric Metaxas. This is a collection of speeches by eminent theists at a monthly function in New York City.

The third chapter of the book consisted of a speech titled, “The Importance of Fatherhood,” by Dr. Paul Vitz, Professor of Psychology at New York University, and author of “Faith of the Fatherless; the Psychology of Atheism, “ and several other books.

Dr. Vitz, as a professor of psychology, is supposedly a scientist, but his speech amounted to blatant emotionalism and a transparently shoddy attempt to pass off anecdote as science.

Vitz’s approach was to list several famous atheist bad people such as Stalin, Pol Pot and others, and then briefly outline their life histories to demonstrate that they all lacked good fathers. You may notice that this is very similar to the Christian tactic of claiming that atheists are immoral because famous atheists like Stalin and Pol Pot were immoral. Vitz claims to get even more “knowledge” from these historical figures’ life stories. According to him, not only were these bad people atheists, but they became atheists, at least in part, because they had bad fathers.

To show how this game is played, what if I were to state that religious leaders are pretentious, self-obsessed, dishonest charlatans (i.e. “bad people”), and provided brief histories of the following to make my case: Joseph Smith, David Koresh, Jim Jones, Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell, Warren Jeffs, Ted Haggard, and Jim Bakker? Would I have actually proved that religious leaders are bad people? Obviously not; at most I would have proven that some are, and my hypothesis may be worthy of further study.

Vitz said, “You fathers are of great importance in forming the religious attitude of your children. As we have seen, many an atheist was damaged by negative personal relationships, especially with a father or father figure.” The implication is clear that we atheists are “damaged,” and, presumably, atheism itself is a symptom of psychological damage.

Yet, I have read dozens of testimonials on by people who have lived with chronic fears and anxiety, and/or seriously damaged self-esteem, which was clearly caused by strict fundamentalist upbringing. I could very easily collect a few stories of the type I describe, which mentioned fathers, and then write with 100% accuracy that “. . . many a THEIST was damaged by negative personal relationships, especially with a father or father figure.” See how easy it is to play the anecdote game?

So, according to Vitz, good fathers raise theists, and bad or missing fathers raise atheists. But, even if this were true, how are we to know from his few stories whether this holds true for 90%, or 1%, or 0.001% of the population? Obviously, we can’t know from stories alone. So, what has he accomplished here except to suggest that his thesis is correct, when in fact, as he surely knows, he hasn’t proved a thing, and in fact may have grossly misled his audience?

Good fathers raise theists, and bad or missing fathers raise atheists.And, when one makes blanket statements, he risks being proven wrong by the exceptions. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are extremely wealthy atheists who have given billions of dollars to charities. Now, should we assume these atheists are bad people? (And that they had “bad” fathers?) And why didn’t Vitz profile these well-known atheists in his research?

It is a simple fact every competent scientist knows that a pile of anecdotes, no matter how high, can never prove anything beyond the weakest scientific claim – such as, SOME religious leaders are dishonest, or SOME atheists had bad fathers, or some atheists were/are bad people. To portray a collection of anecdotes as hard won truth achieved through serious research is misleading at best and dishonest at worst.

Anecdotes are stories. Now, stories may be useful for illustrative purposes, but they are not data. You can go into any Christian Science reading room and find thousands of stories about prayer healing people’s health and other problems, but we also know you won’t find any data there.

Christians seem to have a problem understanding this, even some Christians who are scientists. Over and over Christians use stories they have heard or read, or stories from their own lives, and claim their stories prove their contention – that Bible-god exists, or prayer works, or atheists result from bad fathers, etc. We need to recognize when this trick is being used and call them on it. This is not science, and for any “confirming” story that one hears, a disconfirming story is almost always close at hand. Tell me a story of how prayer worked, and I’ll tell you a story of when prayer didn’t work. Tell me a story of how man’s conscience proves there’s a god, and I’ll tell you a story of how some men’s consciences convinced them they should fly airplanes into tall office buildings.

Show me the data, Dr. Vitz, that bad fathers routinely create atheists, and maybe then I’ll take you half seriously – but only half, since you still will not have proven that being an atheist is a bad thing. But, a few stories shouldn’t convince anyone, and you, as a scientist, should be ashamed for using such a shamelessly misleading tactic. Maybe I should use your speech as “proof” that Christians are so brainwashed with self-righteousness than they can’t even recognize their own cheating? But, alas, you needn't worry; I value my self-respect far too much to play the “anecdote as proof” game.


Popular posts from this blog


By David Andrew Dugle ~ O ctober. Halloween. It's time to visit the haunted house I used to live in. When I was five my dad was able to build a big modern house. Moving in before it was complete, my younger brother and I were sleeping in a large unfinished area directly under the living room. It should have been too new to be a haunted house, but now and then I would wake up in the tiny, dark hours and see the blurry image of a face, or at least what I took to be a face, glowing, faintly yellow, high up on the wall near the ceiling. I'm not kidding! Most nights it didn’t appear at all. But when it did show itself, at first I thought it was a ghost and it scared me like nothing else I’d ever seen. But the face never did anything; unmoving, it just stayed in that one spot. Turning on the lights would make it disappear, making my fears difficult to explain, so I never told anyone. My Sunday School teachers had always told me to be good because God was just behind m

The Blame Game or Shit Happens

By Webmdave ~ A relative suffering from Type 1 diabetes was recently hospitalized for an emergency amputation. The physicians hoped to halt the spread of septic gangrene seeping from an incurable foot wound. Naturally, family and friends were very concerned. His wife was especially concerned. She bemoaned, “I just don’t want this (the advanced sepsis and the resultant amputation) to be my fault.” It may be that this couple didn’t fully comprehend the seriousness of the situation. It may be that their choice of treatment was less than ideal. Perhaps their home diabetes maintenance was inconsistent. Some Christians I know might say the culprit was a lack of spiritual faith. Others would credit it all to God’s mysterious will. Surely there is someone or something to blame. Someone to whom to ascribe credit. Isn’t there? A few days after the operation, I was talking to a man who had family members who had suffered similar diabetic experiences. Some of those also suffered ea

Reasons for my disbelief

By Rebekah ~ T here are many layers to the reasons for my disbelief, most of which I haven't even touched on here... When I think of Evangelical Christianity, two concepts come to mind: intense psychological traps, and the danger of glossing over and missing a true appreciation for the one life we know that we have. I am actually agnostic when it comes to a being who set creation in motion and remains separated from us in a different realm. If there is a deistic God, then he/she doesn't particularly care if I believe in them, so I won't force belief and instead I will focus on this one life that I know I have, with the people I can see and feel. But I do have a lot of experience with the ideas of God put forth by Evangelical Christianity, and am confident it isn't true. If it's the case god has indeed created both a physical and a heavenly spiritual realm, then why did God even need to create a physical realm? If the point of its existence is to evolve to pas

Are You an Atheist Success Story?

By Avangelism Project ~ F acts don’t spread. Stories do. It’s how (good) marketing works, it’s how elections (unfortunately) are won and lost, and it’s how (all) religion spreads. Proselytization isn’t accomplished with better arguments. It’s accomplished with better stories and it’s time we atheists catch up. It’s not like atheists don’t love a good story. Head over to the atheist reddit and take a look if you don’t believe me. We’re all over stories painting religion in a bad light. Nothing wrong with that, but we ignore the value of a story or a testimonial when we’re dealing with Christians. We can’t be so proud to argue the semantics of whether atheism is a belief or deconversion is actually proselytization. When we become more interested in defining our terms than in affecting people, we’ve relegated ourselves to irrelevance preferring to be smug in our minority, but semantically correct, nonbelief. Results Determine Reality The thing is when we opt to bury our

Christian TV presenter reads out Star Wars plot as story of salvation

An email prankster tricked the host of a Christian TV show into reading out the plots of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Star Wars in the belief they were stories of personal salvation. The unsuspecting host read out most of the opening rap to The Fresh Prince, a 1990s US sitcom starring Will Smith , apparently unaware that it was not a genuine testimony of faith. The prankster had slightly adapted the lyrics but the references to a misspent youth playing basketball in West Philadelphia would have been instantly familiar to most viewers. The lines read out by the DJ included: "One day a couple of guys who were up to no good starting making trouble in my living area. I ended up getting into a fight, which terrified my mother." The presenter on Genesis TV , a British Christian channel, eventually realised that he was being pranked and cut the story short – only to move on to another spoof email based on the plot of the Star Wars films. It began: &quo

Why I left the Canadian Reformed Church

By Chuck Eelhart ~ I was born into a believing family. The denomination is called Canadian Reformed Church . It is a Dutch Calvinistic Christian Church. My parents were Dutch immigrants to Canada in 1951. They had come from two slightly differing factions of the same Reformed faith in the Netherlands . Arriving unmarried in Canada they joined the slightly more conservative of the factions. It was a small group at first. Being far from Holland and strangers in a new country these young families found a strong bonding point in their church. Deutsch: Heidelberger Katechismus, Druck 1563 (Photo credit: Wikipedia ) I was born in 1955 the third of eventually 9 children. We lived in a small southern Ontario farming community of Fergus. Being young conservative and industrious the community of immigrants prospered. While they did mix and work in the community almost all of the social bonding was within the church group. Being of the first generation born here we had a foot in two